Exclusive:Why Sir Keir Starmer wants to smash through the 'class ceiling' with vision for Scotland
Meanwhile, the world around us is becoming a more volatile place. Revolutions in technology, energy and medicine are reshaping the global economy. Climate change is a recipe for instability, as we can see right across Europe this summer. War has returned to the continent on a scale not seen this century.
When I reflect on these momentous challenges, it’s hard not to think back to my childhood in the 1970s. Then, as now, Britain’s place in the world felt less secure and confident. Then, as now, our economy was gripped by stuttering growth and a cost-of-living crisis.
We felt it in my family. I certainly don’t plead poverty – we were just an ordinary working class family, living in an ordinary working class house in a small town in Southern England. Dad was a tool-maker, Mum an NHS nurse, and yes, they did name me after Labour’s Scottish founder Keir Hardie. Unfortunately though, Mum was also quite ill with a rare auto-immune condition called Still’s disease. So things did sometimes get a little tough. Our phone used to get cut off when we failed to keep up with our payments – and there were no mobiles back then.
In all seriousness though – that wasn’t a great feeling. When prices keep on going up, there is an almost suffocating “what next” anxiety that can easily hang over a family. This has stayed with me – I think about it all the time now, during our contemporary cost-of-living crisis.
But I also think about the journey I have been lucky to go in life – from those beginnings to the privilege of leading the Crown Prosecution Service and now, the Labour Party. I also remember seeing many other people from my background achieve their aspirations back then, as well. And when I put all this together, I don’t believe it’s overly sentimental to say I grew up surrounded by hope. There was an atmosphere of security we all took for granted – a sense that hard work would be rewarded in Britain. That, in the end, things would get better for families like ours.
My parents didn’t just believe this, it comforted them. It’s what everyone wants for their family; a story we still tell our children – “work hard and you can achieve anything”. The question now is: do we still believe it? Can you look around your community today and say, with the certainty you deserve, that the future will be better for your children?
Working people I speak with have their doubts – and that’s putting it mildly. From Kirkcaldy to Glasgow, Inverness to Rutherglen, they all tell me how little trust they have in politics to change things for them. And, if I’m totally frank, this extends to my Labour Party. Countless people tell me they support Labour values. Yet they remain unconvinced that we – or, for that matter, Britain itself – still offer the way forward for Scotland or their community.
Everything I have done since becoming Labour leader should be viewed as a direct response to this disconnect. My political project is to return Labour to the service of working people and working-class communities. There may have been times in the recent past where Labour was afraid to speak the language of class at all – but not my Labour Party. No, for me, smashing the “class ceiling” that holds working people back is our defining purpose. Because you cannot seriously take on inequality, or poverty, or the pernicious idea that circumstances – who you are, where you come from, who you know – can still count for more than enterprise or imagination, without talking about class. This is personal. I want every family to feel that Britain will support people like them to get on. My family felt able to take that on faith – so should yours.
Of course, given the dire mess a Labour Government would inherit from the Tories – in both our public finances and public services – this is an ambitious vision. We know that Britain in 2024 will be a country in need of fundamental change. That is true for the economy, for climate change, for health, education, policing and also for the fight against poverty. I don’t look at our current social security system and think tinkering at the edges will be good enough – far from it.
Indeed, like so many other policy areas, it suffers from the curse of what I call “sticking plaster politics” – a chronic Tory tendency to always reach for a short-term fix, not a long-term cure. So, just like the last Labour Government, which lifted two million people out of disadvantage, we will address the root causes of poverty. But we will do so in a way that also maintains a tight grip on the nation’s finances.
This is a crucial task in the goal of serving working people. Lose control of the economy, as we have seen under the Tories, and ultimately it’s working people who pay the price. Fiscal responsibility and supporting the most vulnerable are not conflicting priorities – they go hand in hand.
Returning Labour to the service of working people is also why we have moved so quickly to transform our party’s culture. As well as tackling the moral disease of anti-Semitism, the UK Labour Party I lead now prefers a credible plan to a grand, but empty gesture; solutions over symbols. We have emerged out of the comfort zone of protest and are ready to take the tough decisions needed to change working class lives.
Moreover, with our five national missions, we have a long-term plan that focuses squarely upon the priorities of working people. Sustained growth and higher living standards in every part of Britain; cheaper bills and clean electricity; an NHS fit for the future; safer streets in your community; more opportunities for your children – these are the changes working people everywhere want to see. And in each of these missions we have taken clear steps to make sure the interests of working people come first.
Take our three public service missions. In each case we follow a simple formula – smart reforms, smart investments, working people first. This will benefit Scotland because when we remove tax exemptions from private schools, or scrap the Non-Dom tax status, the investments we can then make in schools and hospitals means more money for Scottish public services via the Barnett formula.
Or take our mission on growth. This isn’t the trickle-down Tory nonsense that, for working-class communities, means jobs trickle out and power trickles up. Nor will we accept growth only in the South East of England, with redistribution as a one-word plan for the rest of the country. No – every community needs growth; every community needs secure jobs and higher wages.
The Tories want you to think this can’t be done, but what they mean is they can’t do it. But we have a plan that will work. It means bulldozing through the red tape that stops affordable homes being built in working-class towns. It means embracing a proper industrial strategy – a real partnership between business, unions and communities – that will win the race for the jobs of the future. And it means striking a new deal that will strengthen workers’ rights and finally make work pay. No more zero-hour contracts, no more fire and rehire, and a real living wage for everyone. That is how a Labour Government in Westminster can secure growth that delivers for working people in Scotland.
Finally, take our mission on clean energy, which, of course, has particular significance for Scotland. There has been a lot of noise about this in recent weeks, so let me be crystal clear – we will throw everything at making sure our electricity system is carbon free by 2030. That means bold investments in renewables, nuclear and carbon capture – absolutely. But it also means new institutions, new partnerships with the private sector, planning and procurement reform, a strategic plan for skills and supply chains, and a relentless determination to speed up connections with the National Grid.
Now, these may not be policies that get the political pulse racing. But they all matter and Scotland shows why. Because when I speak to working people here, they tell me – “Scotland has the wind farms, Scotland has invested in clean energy, but the jobs that were promised to our community never came”. There’s no denying this either – the SNP have failed miserably. Less than a quarter of the clean energy jobs they promised have materialised.
For example, Britain has the second largest off-shore wind capacity in the world, after China. Yet over the North Sea in Denmark, they’ve got three times as many jobs. In fact, right now Malaysia and Munich – the city of Munich – currently own more of our offshore wind assets than we do. How do you explain that? What do the SNP say to workers in the fabrication years of Fife that have to look out of their window and watch others putting up turbines in the Forth? Working people who would be proud to build something that lasts in their country?
It’s a gargantuan failure – there is a real opportunity for Scotland here. But we’ve got to get properly on the pitch. So we’ll set up a new National Wealth Fund to work with the private sector and finance the critical infrastructure for clean jobs – the green steel plants, the battery gigafactories, the ports that can finally handle large off-shore wind parts. We’ll introduce a British Jobs Bonus that will attract new investment and jobs into our industrial heartlands – 50,000 new Scottish jobs by 2030. And we’ll set up GB Energy – a new publicly owned energy company – in Scotland within our first year in office. That’s the centrepiece of our clean energy strategy: based in Scotland, bringing jobs to Scotland, delivering cheaper bills for Scotland.
But GB Energy also shows something more precious – a new way of doing Westminster politics. This is the value of our mission-led approach, taken as a whole. And I freely admit this aims to fundamentally change the relationship between Scotland, England and our union.
My belief in the union is straightforward. When I think about the great challenges we must face, I passionately believe we will tackle them better as four great nations working together for a common good. From war to the welfare state, this is writ large in our history – time and again it is the solidarity of working people that makes the difference. And whether it is climate change, artificial intelligence, or standing up to tyrants like Vladimir Putin, I believe the same will be true in the future. No matter the test, the dynamism of working people, standing together across four nations, is the force that will drive Britain forward. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, this is both the Labour argument for Britain and our vision for it. A Britain once again built for and by working people is the purpose our missions strive towards.
Yet for that argument to hold it must feel true in Scotland. And for the past 13 years the SNP has been able to point towards the chaos of Tory rule and say, at the moment, it doesn’t. It’s impossible to disagree. At every stage in this vicious cycle of crisis and stagnation, the Tories have protected people like them, while working people pay the price. At every opportunity they have stoked the fires of division in pursuit of their narrow short-term political objectives.
Mark my words – this all changes with a Labour Government. But I want everyone in Scotland to know that we will also roll up our sleeves and change the wider culture of Westminster itself. I came late to politics, having run large organisations dedicated to public service.
As Director of Public Prosecutions, I’d taken on cases like the murder of Jane Clough, a nurse stabbed to death by the man awaiting multiple charges of raping her. Working alongside her inspirational parents, John and Penny, we made some changes that did give extra protection to victims of sexual violence like Jane. But as we pushed and pushed, it became increasingly clear that politics is the only way to make a big difference.
I know many people are cynical about that and they do have a point. Working within it, I find Westminster incredibly frustrating. The pervasive short-termism, the walking around problems, the gesture politics impulse that I found in the Labour Party I inherited – that all seems baked in to how it works. There are many good MPs there, but as a system it seems to push against that spirit of public service.
Nonetheless, I do still believe politics is how we fix problems, how we change things, how we build a better future. Just look around Scotland. Seriously – the value of politics is written into the walls of every community in this nation.
There’s the Scotland that the solidarity of working people built; that the Labour movement built – the industrial spirit, the sense of community, the social housing, the NHS and welfare state. All emerging out of the rubble of the Second World War; all delivering security for working people in defiance of a volatile world.
Then there are the scars of the Scotland born of 1979 onwards, when the Labour Party was turfed out of power and the Tories got to manage a period of enormous upheaval. It’s a Scotland where the prosperity oil and gas could have brought was squandered. Where the government saw working-class solidarity, across Britain, as a threat. And where an economic transition away from central Scotland’s main industries was – as it was in Sheffield and Sunderland, Nottinghamshire and Neath – needlessly cruel.
Today, the world is going through a period of change every bit as big as those two enormous moments in Scotland’s political history. Part of this is about energy of course. As a young lawyer I worked with the mining communities to oppose the Tories pit closure programme – so I do know how worrying the prospect of industrial change can be. A Labour Government would manage the transition to clean energy responsibly. We will not rip up existing oil and gas licenses or create new cliff edges.
But energy is just one area – in periods of change like this the tough decisions will come thick and fast. When I walk around Scotland today and hear the stories of those who live here, there are clear glimpses of a third Scotland, a new Scotland, a future Scotland. It’s there in the hydrogen and carbon capture cluster in Grangemouth, the innovative brilliance of the video gamers of Dundee, the marvel of the Whitelee Windfarm outside Glasgow, the continued allure of the Highlands, the creative resilience of its rural communities, and in the restless ingenuity of its cities.
It’s a Scotland that is confident in itself, where devolution is respected and protected, and a Scotland that can also be the beating heart of a new Britain. Because Britain is once again built for and by the solidarity of working people.
That is the Scotland I want to walk with you towards. In hard times like these, it will not be easy. But I have moved my party away from the game of gesture politics to focus on the long-term needs of working people. And with our national missions that is exactly what I will do with Westminster.
This marks us out from the Tories, but also from the SNP. Their campaign for independence may not be gesture politics, but it has totally distracted the SNP from the day-to-day job of serving Scotland’s working people. In contrast, this is what I promise: a politics dedicated to service, not symbols. And a Labour Party that fights for a Scotland the serves working people.
There may be something slightly old-fashioned in both these pledges. But in an increasingly volatile world, I am convinced they are the right choice for Scotland’s future.
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